By Harry Keaney
On Sept. 11, 1962, 18-year-old Mary Butler Shannon stepped from the transAtlantic ship the Cunard Sylvania onto the sweltering streets of Manhattan. It was hot and balmy, her houndstooth-patterned heavy wool and tweed dress an instant reminder that survival meant adjustment.
Today, a patch from that dress is part of a small wall quilt portraying her grandmother’s old thatched cottage in Ireland. The quilt hangs in Shannon’s sitting room in Bergenfield, N.J., a reminder not only of her Irish roots but also of the love of quilting that blossomed from those roots.
Mention quilts and most people think of bed coverings. But Shannon’s quilts, which range in prices from $25 to $5,000, are works of fiber art, enhancing private collections from Norway to Japan. What determines price, she explained, is size, intricacy of design, fabrics and the amount of handquilting. "Time is money," she said.
The Cahir, Co. Tipperary, native specializes in Celtic design, drawing inspiration from sources as diverse as mythology and ancient monuments to the colors of the Irish dawn, from the Giant’s Causeway to the St. Brigid’s Cross.
"The quilt is just the vehicle to express every aspect of Irish culture," she said. "I incorporate ancient Irish art, arch’ology, illuminated manuscript, history, poetry and folk tales."
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She traces her obsession with quilt making to her French grandmother, Ellen Galbert Murphy, the oldest of six children brought to Ireland by their father, a sea captain, who fell in love with the country.
"My grandmother showed me how to do some patchwork and, between the ages of 4 and 5, I taught myself embroidery," she said. "Granny was living in Waterford and sometimes, when we visited her, I would look at a picture from her encyclopedia, memorize it, and try and do it when I got home."
However, it was art, specifically watercoloring, that was Shannon’s first love. But in difficult economic times, this was regarded as a frivolous activity, hence her focus on needlework and embroidery.
When she was 8, she was paid 2 shillings and 6 pence to design and embroider a complete costume for a champion Irish dancing classmate. When she was 10, she did her first original design, a pleated skirt and jumper for her sister, Helen, who was 2.
In New York, while working in the advertising agency Rosston Kremer Slawter, Inc., the company treasurer, Ed Rosston, impressed by Shannon’s self-designed clothes, urged her to capitalize on her natural talent by undertaking formal training. She attended the Fashion Institute of Technology at night for four and a half years, as well as City University and Lehman College, obtaining a license to teach textiles.
As a quiltmaker, Shannon uses an array of colors and fabrics, styles rich in symbolism, and a variety of techniques, such as patchwork with overlays of Celtic lacing, appliqués and trapunto, the latter a stuffed or raised form of quilting which projects a three-dimensional effect.
And, of course, for every quilt, there’s a story, which Shannon, a fluent Irish speaker, delivers with the natural panache of a seanachaí, the telling stylishly sprinkled with sentences and words "as G’ilge."
In the fall, she will be among Tara Circle’s tutors in White Plains teaching Celtic design for quilts as well as Celtic embroidery. She teaches the Irish language and Irish Celtic mythology at quilting Bergen Community College. She also teaches quilting as part of an adult night program at Bergenfield High School.
She is currently working on two wedding quilts as well as vestments, not to mention her ongoing work on her slides, stencils and shows.
Right now, Shannon is elated over her acquisition of a 1,000-square-foot barn in Bergenfield, enabling her to hang her larger quilts for the duration it takes to complete them. Like all artists, she craves for the space and quiet in which to work and think.
"That will be my oasis," she said of the barn. "Anyone who shows up there unannounced is dead."